Shaun turned to Ralph with wild eyes. “What do we do? Why don’t they stop her?” He watched the young girl’s huge eyes roam over each tiny man, over himself. Her stubbly teeth glistened as she stared at them in wonder.
The bartender only stood stiffly behind his bar. “Take it easy, buddy. We’re surrounded by adults. They won’t let this get out of control.”
“Yeah, the law’s on our side,” commented Duane darkly from behind the couch.
Shaun felt his pulse quicken as the barroom echoed sharply with the wet clicking racket of the girl’s bubblegum. “But what if they’re not paying attention? Do you think they take this that seriously?”
Ralph glanced at Shaun. “Your woman takes care of you, right?”
Before Shaun could answer, Linda’s voice filled the rooms: “Okay, I think that’s enough, now. Let them get back to work.” The little girl’s parents picked up on the cue and spoke rapidly in Mandarin, urging the girl to come back to them. Daylight filled the rooms as she stood up obediently and trotted off, thanking Linda and Janine for the experience.
Janine told her parents what a cutie she was, then turned back to the ice-hotel. “You said this is going on in other places, too?” Linda nodded, setting her brilliant red tresses shaking, and asked Ted to turn off the hockey game for a second. The little man moved to the smartphone, pulling off his gloves and wiping the screen in full-bodied gestures. The streaming sports channel closed and he called up another website, opening up live-streaming video. Ted and Chris quietly removed themselves from their game and joined the men in the bar, as Linda and Janine’s enormous faces crowded together, blocking out the light, and watched the large phone screen.
“Oh, my Goddess! Look at them!” Janine squealed. “Where are they?”
“Alberta,” yelled Chris, picking up a schnapps. The screen showed a shaky view of an ice castle being built by Normies, towers formed and planted into place. The camera zoomed in and stabilized, displaying a team of Anthropoles bundled up in dense blaze-orange coats and dark gray wool, milling around the castle. As components were erected, they closed in with digging tools and hollowed these out, quickly carving a circular staircase within the tower and tunneling through to the main body of the castle. The camera floated up to one of the windows and exposed even more tiny men excavating large rooms, hauling in miniature furniture furnished by their attendant Normies.
“There’s two more like this in Minnesota and one in the Dakotas,” Linda said proudly, as though she’d had anything to do with this. “Are you guys ready for your moment in the spotlight?”
The men in the snowbank looked at each other and shrugged, taking their places as Linda pulled out her own phone. Shaun shook Ralph’s hand and said he’d look him up, then waved Janine down.
“Aw, don’t you want to be in the video?” She smiled encouragingly at him but he gently insisted and she brought her mitten up to the barroom. He took a leap into the center of her palm, flattening himself out and resting as his lover curled her hands around him. He heard her grunt as she stood up. “It was really nice to meet you, Linda! Lin, Jian, your daughter really is gorgeous, and so polite!” Shaun heard the couple thank her, and he heard Linda’s frustration: she wanted to say a special goodbye to Shaun, but the camera had already started rolling.
“You make sure to bring him over sometime!” she yelled at Janine.
Janine joined the other adults at the card table; Shaun remained buried between her mittens and her jacket until she carefully set him upon the table. He found himself standing amid three large mugs, and the air was full of peppermint tea and something that reminded him of beef stew. He was also surprised to realize he recognized one of the people standing around. “Oh, hey Terrence,” he yelled up to his downstairs neighbor.
“Hey-hey, Shaun. Look at you, sportin’ your winter gear, hangin’ with the big guys. How you doing?” Terrence toasted him with a mug.
“What’s in the Thermos that isn’t tea?”
“Julian was telling me about it. Julian? What’s in here again?”
Shaun watched Terrence glance over the table to a very modest, elderly couple hovering around the far side. The woman, her white hair done up in a bun, was chatting with another middle-aged couple. She wore a bulky, shiny fuchsia parka and her gloved hand rested on the card table. Beside her hand, an elderly Anthropole wrapped one arm around her leather-clad pinky and observed the conversation until Terrence called him. Embarrassed at his obliviousness, Shaun hopped through the mugs and ran over to shake the man’s hand. “Shaun Chastain,” he said hastily, “I’m with Janine Galvan up there.”
“Julian Alexander.” The man’s voice was smooth and kindly. His snowy hair was combed straight back, topped with a smart little olive Homburg, and he moved stiffly in layers of dolls’ coats. “This is my darling little Sharon.” He patted her gloved knuckle; she didn’t appear to notice, locked as she was in conversation. “She doesn’t mean to be rude.”
Shaun blinked. “Alexander? You’re Alexander Tax, on the corner?” The old man chuckled and said he was, and Shaun sighed. “I really feel like I’ve waken out of a coma or something. All these pieces falling into place today. It’s really nice to finally put faces to all these names I’ve seen around town. Well, just in my neighborhood alone. I’m embarrassed to have lived here this long and not met you.”
Julian chuckled with his whole body. “Such a polite young man. I know how it can be, in this world built for giants. It’s big and dangerous, safer to just stay inside and earn a living, if you can.”
The words were meant to be encouraging but Shaun felt a little worse about himself. Was he so timid? “I didn’t know there were so many Anthropoles on our block, I guess. I mean, I knew about Linda’s place.” He watched Julian’s expression carefully at the mention. “You really can’t tell who’s one of us, just by the names.”
The old man only nodded slightly. “In a few cases, you can, I think. You know Agustin Smith, living next to you?” Shaun knew of the Anthropole, had seen him and his girlfriend running errands occasionally, but hadn’t picked up his name. “And then there’s Hayden Smith, working at Tarot Bean on the corner. You know him, surely.”
“We, uh, grind our own coffee,” Shaun offered lamely. “Smiths, huh? If they’re not brothers…”
“900s, the kids call them.” Julian adjusted his coats, struggling for a moment before giving up with a large sigh. “It’s good to see them working out so well. Anyway, come on, let’s get you a drink. Sharon! I’m taking this nice man out for a drink!” Her huge, gloved hand lifted and fluttered over the pair in a distracted greeting. “Really, she’s more hospitable than this, usually. She just hasn’t seen Moshe and Sophia since they got back from Israel last week.” The footsteps of the two men were all but lost upon the padded card table top as they closed in on the small village of hot mugs. “Here, here we go. Hey, Terrence?”
The young man’s sharp ears picked up on Julian’s call immediately; Shaun made note of this. “Yes, sir?” Julian waved stiffly at a shot glass beside one of the Thermoses, and Terrence efficiently filled it with a steaming brown liquid. Beside the shot glass was a clumsily crafted but entirely serviceable tin ladle, which Julian filled and handed to Shaun.
“Not all at once, now. Let it warm you up.” Julian stepped back and admired Shaun’s outfit while he drank. “What do you think?”
A light breeze whistled through the mugs and around the two Anthropoles as Shaun tried to make up his mind. “Salty. Beef bouillon, and Tabasco? But it has a kick to it. What is this?”
Julian’s face lit up with long-in-standing pride. “Consomme and vodka, with a few other things. It’s an old hunting drink my grandfather used to make on the estate. Warms you up on days like this. It’s called a bullshot.”
Shaun glanced up at his girlfriend. This entire time, Janine had been holding a distracted conversation with Terrence, more intent on watching her little lover stroll around, chatting with the neighbor, heading over for drinks. Her eyes glistened in the early afternoon light and her cheeks were cutely ruddy. Staring up at her, at the beautiful giantess who faintly vibrated with happiness at him, he felt the vodka flush through his little body and the hot sauce heat up his blood to a cozy simmer. “Julian, this is my endlessly patient and long-suffering girlfriend, Janine.”
“We’ve met.” He doffed his hat at the gigantic young woman, who flapped her mitten at him in response.
Shaun guffawed helplessly, spreading his arms. “Of course you have! I’m the only one who hasn’t met anyone. Well, I’m fixing that now, aren’t I.”
“Honey?” Janine’s voice was lilting. “Are you getting a little tipsy?”
He waved the ladle up at her. “Everyone at this party seems intent on getting me shitfaced. Which, you know, is awesome.” The ladle flashed as he dipped it into the shot glass once more.
Julian chuckled and shrugged before Janine’s blue-jeaned hips. “My fault entirely, I’m afraid. I’m just happy to meet the neighbors, you know.”
“Too bad they couldn’t all make it out.” Janine looked down the block at another apartment quad on the other side of Rizvan Yaser’s house. She barely caught a dark window lightening up as its Venetian blinds were cranked shut. “But it’s good for my little guy, I think.” Her immense body rushed below the table, stopping as her face hovered by the mugs. “Having a good time, sweetie?”
Shaun returned the ladle to Julian. “Better take this away from me. That’s a hell of a drink, sir. Very delighted to meet you.” He shook the laughing man’s hand and carefully tread his way to the huge face, patting her bottom lip chummily. “Guess I should cut myself off. First impressions and all that, huh?”
Janine closed her lips around his hand and hummed at him; he smiled up at her nostrils. “What do you think, baby? Is it time to head back inside? How’s your coat holding up?”
He looked down at his Veksten as though just noticing it. “You know, this is fantastic. Though maybe that’s the hypothermia talking. Anyway, giving it a positive review.” He swung his arms and trotted around in a little circle before his girlfriend’s face. “Do I have time to meet a few more neighbors, or do you need to go inside?”
Over his head, Janine winked at Julian, who nodded and toddled off to his wife. “I think we need to go inside for a little bit,” she whispered breathily, “and then we can come back out and make some more friends.”
A crooked smile spread across Shaun’s face. “Yeah, I think I definitely need to go inside. A couple times.”
“Too far, little man.” Janine stood up, scooped her tiny boyfriend into her mittens, and picked her way carefully across the street.